There are two short quotes from Jean Genet that continue to haunt me:
Anyone who’s never experienced the pleasure of betrayal doesn’t know what pleasure is.
What is not futile in this world? I’m asking you: what is not futile in the last analysis?
These words express negativity. But negativity with energy, tangled up in the concurrent desire for something better. They are taken out of context, and it’s been a long time now that I no longer remember exactly where I first found them. (I believe in Genet’s final book Prisoner of Love.) Somehow, over the years, these two lines have become part of my life. I feel that I’ve betrayed people, and I feel that everything is futile, and Genet is there, somewhere in the back of my head, to tell me that all of this is almost all right. Of course, it’s not actually all right, not at all. But in such pure negativity there is will and there is struggle. Also: there are things I believe I might be able to change about myself and things it seems will most likely never change. Futility and betrayal fall into the later category. In the end, I probably have no choice.
When I write, I often try to balance it out, not let negativity always take the lead. As I do so, there is always another part of me that thinks: what if you were to completely let go, just write the most negatively, nihilistically negative texts you are capable of. What might happen then? The reason I believe I generally don’t do so is because, even though my experience of life is predominantly negative, I understand this is not the case for everyone, and I want my writing to reflect their experience as well. I want my writing to be larger than myself, to let in things that I see in the world but don’t necessarily relate to. Through editing, such things can momentarily become part of my worldview. It might be a trick but it is also strangely true. It is true as I’m writing, but when I’m not writing the negativity once again, for the most part, dominates. In writing this, I believe I’m attempting to get at something more general about art. Art is the artist plus the world, the artist struggling to let in as much of the world as possible. Or, at least, this is the art I desire. In doing do, it is more than possible that the artist betrays the world. And it is even possible that such betrayal is transformed into a kind of secular grace. Alchemists once hoped to transform lead into gold, and from this desire laid the groundwork for modern science. What do artists start with, and into what do they hope it will transform?
I want to believe that activism is not futile. I know it can accomplish things. When I think of everything that successful activism actually requires, I also think of the somewhat well-known Camus quote: “We must imagine Sisyphus as happy.” (It seems my entire consciousness had been overtaken by a series of short citations.) Sisyphus can never get that fucking rock to the top of the hill. It is an eternal undertaking. There are small victories along the way, but the struggle actually never ends. What would it mean for Sisyphus to betray this struggle. He cannot. He has no choice but to keep pushing.
It is often said that artists also have no choice but to keep making art. That if they are true artists, yet for whatever reason stop making things, they will be unhappy. To keep going, to persevere regardless of the circumstances, is a kind of happiness. Or pleasure. Or betrayal of the greater happiness to be found in doing nothing.